DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The president of Guatemala, Jimmy Morales, came to office promising to end corruption, but he's also under investigation by an anti-corruption commission backed by the United Nations, and so he took things in his own hands and decided to shut the commission down. NPR's John Burnett reports.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala is known by its Spanish acronym CICIG. It was created 12 years ago in concert with the United Nations around the idea that military and government elites cannot continue plundering public funds if this enfeebled country was to move forward after three decades of savage civil war. Since then, the commission has racked up an impressive record - 310 convictions, 34 legal reforms submitted to the Guatemalan Congress, two former presidents currently in jail on corruption charges and the sitting president is under investigation for campaign finance shenanigans.
KATE DOYLE: CICIG is this great international experiment in criminal investigation and judicial reform, and there's not been anything like it anywhere in the world.
BURNETT: Kate Doyle is a senior analyst at the National Security Archive and a veteran of human rights work in Guatemala.
DOYLE: President Morales' decision to cancel the mandate of CICIG and essentially order its investigations to come to a grinding halt is a terrible blow to the progress that Guatemala has made in justice.
BURNETT: President Morales announced Friday he will not renew the mandate of CICIG when it expires in 12 months and that it's time to transfer their mission to the Guatemalan attorney general's office. Morales appeared in front of a phalanx of dozens of stern military officials, and shortly before his press conference, a column of olive green Jeeps with soldiers and machine gun turrets rolled past CICIG headquarters. The U.S. embassy, which gave the armed vehicles to the police for crime fighting, warned Guatemala not to misuse them. The embassy also reaffirmed its support for CICIG. The United States is a major financial backer of the anti-graft commission. Guatemalan observers consider the use of security forces in these two instances on Friday to be a menacing replay of the bad old days of the 1980s when military coups made Guatemala a pariah state in Latin America.
ALEJANDRO RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: "The president has chosen to take the side of illegality," says longtime Guatemalan human rights lawyer Alejandro Rodriguez. "This is extremely grave. The message the president has sent is basically a coup d'etat." The military procession clearly rattled workers inside CICIG. Matias Ponce is their spokesman.
MATIAS PONCE: As an international organization, you know, we have the immunities, and we expect that the government protect our headquarters. And if you see militares outside, it's not a good sign for an international body.
BURNETT: President Morales has accused CICIG of sowing judicial terror. He's being investigated for using illegal campaign donations to bankroll his 2015 election, and his brother and one of his sons were arrested for fraud.
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BURNETT: Gauging from a dozen interviews in the plaza in front of the green stone national palace yesterday, the work of CICIG remains popular, and the president's decision to kick them out of the country is troubling.
DORA SOLIS: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: "CICIG is working correctly to combat all the corrupt government officials," says Dora Solis, a 64-year-old housewife. "It's they who stand to lose if CICIG continues to do its work in Guatemala." To bring it home to Americans, one longtime Guatemala-watcher put it this way - imagine that President Trump wakes up one morning and announces he's shutting down the Mueller investigation. That's what just happened in Guatemala. John Burnett, NPR News, Guatemala City.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE AMERICAN DOLLAR'S "LOST SYMPHONY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.